One of the most respected symbols of a bygone era for African-Americans in the District is slated for rebirth. Howard Theatre will open with great fanfare after decades of neglect and decay almost led to the permanent demise of the venerable old lady of the Shaw community.
On Monday, April 9, the community is invited to a ribbon cutting and community day, while Thursday, April 12, is set as the date for a grand opening gala and benefit concert for the historic 101-year-old landmark which launched the careers of Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, the Supremes and other entertainers.
April 9 activities – which last from noon to 3 p.m. – include the installation of the "Jazz Man" sculpture in the façade of the theatre. The sculpture was created by Brower Hatcher of Mid-Ocean Studio, Inc. There also will be the unveiling of the Duke Ellington Encore statue by Zachary Oxman.
The Ellis Development Group was awarded the contract to redevelop the city-owned building in 2006 at an estimated cost of $25 million. Company officials formed Howard Theatre Restoration, a nonprofit, to manage the property and complete the project.
The Historic Theatre Restoration website highlights the theatre's majestic history.
"Before the Apollo, before the Regal, there was The Howard Theatre," it said. "At its opening in 1910 it was 'the largest colored theatre in the world.' ... For most of the 20th century, The Howard Theatre, located in the heart of Washington, D.C., near the corner of 7th and T, held audiences captive with music, dance, drama and comedy. Speakers like Booker T. Washington shared the stage with musicals, road shows, vaudeville acts, theater productions and community programs. Later, Washington's favorite son Duke Ellington opened a new era of jazz big bands on The Howard's stage."
"...When the nation was deeply divided by segregation, The Howard Theatre provided a place where color barriers blurred and music unified."
From the outside, the newly restored Howard Theatre looks much like it always has – just better. Built in 1910, the Historic Preservation Review Board wouldn't have had it any other way. But on the inside, the theatre's new look is different and unlike anything Washingtonians have seen before– not at the Howard – not in D.C.
The Howard Theater, located at Sixth & T Streets, Northwest, is scheduled to reopen next week. The renovation and restoration work that began five years ago is just about complete but for a few finishing touches. Local residents, organizations and the media have been given a sneak preview of the new facility and there is no question that the Howard Theatre is new and improved.
"It's like the Cotton Club inside The Apollo," said Michael Marshall, partner at Marshall Moya Design, the District-based architectural firm hired to create the theatre's new interior. Marshall and his partner, Paola Moya, did away with the old stadium-style seats and created a cabaret-style ambiance, with tables and chairs on the main floor, a balcony with Banquettes for private parties, two full bars, a full-food service restaurant and, of course, the stage with one of the best sound systems in the Washington area.
"We just had to come up with something that was modern and warm but, most importantly, flexible," Moya, said. The new theatre's flexible floor arrangement has a capacity for 600-seated guests, and from 1,000 to 1,200 standing. "What we want this time around is for the Howard to be economically sustainable, so that it's flexible enough for various uses and not just locking it into just one type of facility."
The theatre has been closed for 30 years and the D.C. Preservation League listed it among the District's Most Endangered Places in 2002.
Today, glass and mahogany wood surround the entire space and the walls are painted a muted tone of beige to give a feeling of warmth. Marshall and Moya often use the word "warm" as they point out highlights of the interior design.
"At first Michael started with the overall concept, but we wanted something very soft, very welcoming and warm. The light boxes would be a way of bringing in the historic aspect of the space, but trips to several places helped us to root out many ideas and think about how comfortable and intimate we want things to be for the patrons," Moya said.
Light boxes are situated throughout the theatre including the restrooms. Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Marvin Gaye and Duke Ellington are just a few of American music icons whose faces will be illuminated.
"The great thing about the client was they thought about the life cycle of how the theatre would be used Monday through Sunday and then throughout the entire year. The design responds to how the event can change and how the venue can adapt for corporate, concerts, or comedy events.
The "new" Howard Theatre is expected to offer a balance of national events and community performances. The Howard's future cabaret-style format will host a variety of cultural events and is expected to lead the rebirth of jazz, R&B, soul, blues, and funk in Washington D.C.
The theatre will also feature a museum and gift shop. And, with the return of the theatre lobby, one wall will be set aside to recognize contributors to the theatre's $25 million rebuilding project.
This is the Mercedes Benz of theatres, Marshall said. "This is a one of a kind venue."
"It's great when people go on the tours, and they have so many memories even though the theatre has been closed for 30 years."
"[The opening of the theatre] is becoming a reality and it's exciting for us to be a part of it," Moya said.